A Jewish Book-Mitzvah for a Muslim Tale of Healing
Co-authors Susan Shapiro and Kenan Trebincevic discuss their new book The Bosnia List
Last Saturday night, over a hundred people gathered at the Greenwich Village physical therapy office of Kenan Trebincevic to share in a feast of Jewish and Bosnian food and toast the birth of a book he had written with Susan Shapiro, an author and writing professor. The book chronicles Trebincevic's traumatic childhood flight from his hometown in Bosnia in the midst of the 1992 ethnic cleansing war waged against Muslims. At age 12, he and his family escaped and came to the United States. Years later, Trebincevic became a physical therapist and an American citizen, and met Shapiro when she was his patient. When he discovered that Shapiro was grading essays on the assignment to "write about your most humiliating secret," he laughed. But it prompted him to write several pages about his experience and show Shapiro, who urged him to continue. The Bosnia List chronicles Trebincevic's return to his hometown of Brcko with his father and brother, confronting the friends and neighbors who turned on his family decades ago, interspersed with flashbacks of his childhood. At the book party on Saturday, Shapiro joked that Trebincevic was an honorary Jew for the evening, calling up friends and family to light candles on a cake with the book's jacket superimposed on icing, shepherding the book into the world with a "book mitzvah." It was a culmination of the cooperation between the co-authors, who said that they each found encouragement and solace in respecting each other's religious and historical suffering.
Kenan, what was the writing process like for you?
Kenan: English is my second language, and I studied science, not literature. I just kept writing. I had never made sense of how and why we survived. I would give [Shapiro] these essays, and she would say, you can take the worst thing that has happened to you, and turn it into the most beautiful thing. And I felt like a mouse in a maze where every time I would remember a new story, there would be one more roadblock I had to find my way around. It started to feel soothing and addicting.
When you were writing, were things coming up for you that you had not previously remembered?
K: Yeah, Sue would always ask essential details ? touch, sound, what people would look like ? and it all started to come back. I have a good memory to begin with, but I would start to remember what people wore, what they looked like, and I had a lot of those aha moments.
I didn't get emotional at all, but I had to relive the experiences, but this time make sense of them as an adult.
When you went on your trip back to Bosnia, did you think about how you'd process the experience later?
K: Vacation for most 30-year-old single American guys means party and romance. On my list was visiting graveyards and finding people who betrayed us. I had this huge agenda of 12 things on my list. When you go back, you have two films playing in your head ? the current film, things that you see, and then you see things that you saw when you were 12.
What was the toughest part of that trip?
K: Running into certain people who did us harm, and not fearing for myself but fearing for them. I knew I had managed to put my life together, become an American citizen, finished college. I didn't want to upset my dad. You see these people, and they say hello to you like nothing happened. My mom's friend who left us at a checkpoint to die, who could have helped us, he said 'What's up guys, where you been?'
I ran into an old neighbor who stole from us. I went to confront her, in a nice way, just to ask her questions. And either she had 20 years to change the history, or she had 20 minutes from the time she was getting her blow dry finished, to change her story.
That was the toughest, anticipating who I was going to run into.
How did the two of you work together to write the book?
K: We were so immersed in the project. She was reliving the experience with me. So many times I would call and she would be crying. Every morning, lunch, evening, weekend, every free minute I had would be on the phone, texting, emailing, discussing the book.
Sue: The deal was, you fix my back, I'll fix your pages.
Sue, you've written many books yourself. How did you approach working with Kenan?
This is my third collaboration [writing a book]. I'm known as a Jewish journalist, and I've actually reviewed quite a few Holocaust books for the New York Times Book Review for a syndicated column that I had. When I saw the first pages, I thought, it's the male Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story. So I had written about Jewish subjects and I had lost relatives in Eastern Europe in the Holocaust, so that was the context I immediately put it in.
You call The Bosnia List a Jewish-Muslim book of healing. How did your historical and religious backgrounds contribute to the process?
S: I think if there is going to be any kind of Jewish-Muslim peace, it should start where we started, which is completely respecting each other's pain. We had a very intense connection that way, because I came to him and I was completely vulnerable and really in a bad place, and it was extremely sensitive reliving stuff that had happened to him. So there was this intense respect I think.
K: I think there was also growth for you, what happened with you in 9/11, and it gave you a picture of the other side of being Muslim.
S: I was actually a little bit afraid of being Islamaphobic because I have so many relatives in Israel. After 9/11 I did have fights with several students who were Islamic and Arab and Palestinian, fighting, saying negative things about this country. So interestingly, when he first told me he was Muslim, I thought, OK I'm not going to talk about religion and I'm not going to talk about ethnicity at all, which is hilarious because - what did we do for two years?
What was the most challenging part of working on the book for you?
S: When we handed in the book to Wendy Wolf, our editor at Penguin, we handed in 200 pages, and she said, everything you have is fantastic, now just add 100 pages of Yugoslavian history.
K: So we did it like a family history, like a narrative, so it didn't come out boring. With my brother in Queens, my dad, discussing, asking him, watching documentaries on the History Channel, asking him about World War I, my father's war. And also when I went to the cemetery in Bosnia, I asked about all these dead relatives. We didn't want to write antoher strictly political and academic book. We wanted to tell the story of a 12 year old boy, juxtaposed with the perspective of a 30-year-old American citizen.
Do you feel more connected to that 12-year-old boy you were in Bosnia?
K: When I started writing it was more out of a personal matter, to understand what really happened to the family and us, but then came more obligation to tell the story, not just for myself but mostly for my people and anyone who has been persecuted because of their religion, ethnicity or nationality. So I can't think of a better way to preserve memory of everything that has happened. And I can't think of a bigger revenge. This is my revenge for the crimes that were committed against innocent civilians.
Find Out More
Kenan and Sue will speak about The Bosnia List on Wednesday, April 2, from 7:30 - 9 p.m. as part of the Secrets of Publishing First Person Panel at the Strand Rare Books Room, 828 Broadway. Visit www.kenantrebincevic.com for more information about the book.
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